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The Library That Stands On Two Countries

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House has two different addresses. If you are American, you’ll say the library is located at “93 Caswell Avenue, Derby Line, Vermont”, and if you are Canadian, you’ll insist its located at “1 rue Church Street, Stanstead, Quebec”. Both addresses are correct, and either one will take you to the same building. The only thing that matters is from which way you are approaching.

You see, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House is located astride the US-Canada border. One half of the building stands in Derby Line, which is an American town, and the other half stands in Stanstead, a Canadian town. Being border towns, Derby Line and Stanstead share many peculiarities—which we will come to shortly. But first, let’s draw our attention to this singular building.

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The Haskell Free Library & Opera House straddles the US-Canada border. The row of potted plants mark the international border. Photo credit: Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House is housed in an ornate, century-old, two-story stone building built in the Queen Anne Revival style, typical of public libraries of the time. The library and opera house was built by the American, Carlos Haskell, and his Canadian wife Martha Stewart Haskell, and donated to the residents of both countries. It was deliberately built over the border so that both Canadians and Americans can have equal access to the library. The library has only one entrance, on the American side, but Canadians are free to enter and use the library, as long as they return to their Canadian side once they’re done. There is, however, an emergency exit on the Canadian side of the building, but it stays closed.

Inside the building a thick black line runs across the floor of the library's reading room demarcating the Canada–United States border. Upstairs is the opera house, where the line cuts diagonally across the seats so that the stage and half the seats lie on the Canadian side while the rest of the seats on the US side. Similarly, in the library below, children’s books are in the US side, and the rest of the collection and the reading room is in Canada. Because of this, the Haskell Library is sometimes called “the only library in the US with no books” and “the only opera house in the US with no stage”.

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Over the decades, the library has became a hub where residents from both countries meet and interact. The Haskell Library may be the only place where family members divided by the Canada-US border could see each other in person without legally crossing the border. But in recent years some have tried to exploit the border’s relative porousness. In 2011, a Canadian man was arrested for allegedly smuggling a backpack filled with guns through the library’s restroom.

After the September 11 attacks, authorities began tightening the security on the porous border. Streets that once hosted traffic from both countries were closed off, and large potted plants were installed as a barrier on a stretch of the border near the library. A US Homeland Security vehicle sits outside the library, monitoring the entrance 24 hours a day.

The Haskell library is just one of six buildings that straddle the border line. Aside from these structures, Derby Line and Stanstead share some other curiosities as well, like Canusa Avenue, where the international border runs down the middle of the street. While the street itself is in Canada, the houses south of it are in the United States. So whenever Canusa’s American residents pull out of their driveways, they essentially leave the United States. Once there was a post office on Canusa Avenue serving both countries—the world's only international post office. It had one postmaster, but two doors and two postal counters, each serving customers from a different country.

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The US-Canada Border at Derby Line, Vermont, USA. Photo credit: Nekonomist/Flickr

Both Derby Line and Stanstead share the same water system. Drinking water is pumped from wells in Canada, stored in a reservoir in the United States and distributed through a system maintained by Canadians. Derby Line's sewage makes a cross-border trip for treatment.

In earlier times, Stanstead women drove to Vermont to have their babies delivered because of lack of government health care and a highway to Canadian hospitals. Much of the town’s middle-aged or older population, thus, hold dual citizenship.

Although Derby Line and Stanstead have different telephone area codes, a telephone call between the two towns is local.

And lastly, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House is recognized as a historic site in both countries because of its unusual heritage value— being located in both countries, its dual function and the sense of community and goodwill they symbolize.

Also see: Hotel Arbez Franco-Suisse, Located Half in Switzerland and Half in France

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Photo credit: ladykaty24/Flickr

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The Haskell Opera House’s stage is in Canada while most of the seats are in the US. Photo credit: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images.

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Photo credit: Stan Hieronymus/Flickr

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Photo credit: Wikimedia

Sources: BBC / Wikipedia / Wikipedia / Canada's Historic Places / NY Times

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